Simplicity

This is the text of a sermon for St. Bartholomew’s day, in the parish where I am now licensed. The gospel reading it references is John 1:45-51.

This week, while I’ve been preparing to preach on St. Bartholomew, I’ve ended up thinking about the Holy Grail. I don’t mean the romantic cup of legend, but the most elusive Holy Grail of modern life; work-life balance. I certainly haven’t attained it; despite my best efforts to do a little of everything well, I somehow often end up feeling as if the bits of my life are disconnected fragments held in tension, rather than part of a balanced, unified whole. And as I look out at all of you, I know I’m far from alone.

I want to explore the nature of the quest for work-life balance a little bit, because I think it relates to the defining trait of St. Bartholomew quite closely. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus said of Nathanael (the other name for Batholomew), “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” With Bartholomew, what you see is what you get.

Even the most ancient Christian writers recognized this quality as a profound virtue in the Christian life, and a lot has been written about it as “simplicity.” In recent times it has gone somewhat out of fashion, but in some Christian traditions – the Quakers would be an example – simplicity has been a defining concern.

So what is “simplicity”? In classical terms, a virtue is seen as the balance point between two corresponding vices. Simplicity might be seen as the balance point between excessive ascetism and profligacy.   It cuts a straight path between these extremes because it is governed by a profound authenticity and sense of purpose.   What you see is what you get. Certainly Bartholomew didn’t beat about the bush in the conversation we heard today!

Let me be clear: this is not the same as simple-mindedness or being simplistic. Simplicity is an inward reality which can be seen outwardly. It’s not a system or a set of rules. If we were talking in terms of art, it would not be an exercise in painting by number, but more of a moral aesthetics; a fresh freedom to discover what it means to live as Christ’s disciples together.

Ultimately, this freedom comes from the profound trust of a deep relationship with God; it has roots sunk deep in prayer. And from that deep relationship with God comes a healthy sense of our own selves, not needing others around us to reinforce who we are, but knowing that who we are comes from the open hands of a gracious and generous God. Bonhoeffer put it this way: “To be simple is to fix one’s eye solely on the simple truth of God at a time when all concepts are being confused, distorted, and turned upside down.”

I really can’t stress the importance of relationship with God enough; simplicity – or any virtue – is just another anxiety and burden until people have experienced God’s gracious power to provide for their deepest needs. Only then are we free to live in trust.

This place of trust, of deeply knowing God as the everlasting arms which hold us up, then allows a simplicity and authenticity of life to flow out into various aspects of our lives. It is seen in clarity of thought; in direct, honest speech; in acceptance of what is really going in, in all its difficulties; in a focus on a life of purpose. Simplicity is not concerned with the pangs of consumerism. This is why many books on spirituality explain the value of decluttering as a serious spiritual exercise. Or of eating simple meals and even growing your own food.   Simplicity is more interested in doing stuff than having stuff. In that way, simplicity is related to that other out-of-fashion virtue, modesty; by which I don’t mean obsessing about necklines and hemlines but investing more in doing good, than looking good.

And these aspects of simplicity and integrity are what brought me to thinking about work-life balance. The spirituality of simplicity has – as one English bishop put it – a “theology of enough.” Simplicity is an invitation to get off the treadmill-lists of “things to do,” and take time for silence, for reflection, for beauty, for knowing ourselves more deeply and learning to live together in unity.

Because virtues are not just for individuals; they are also about the quality of our life together. I’m aware, as I stand here in these vestments, against the backdrop of this sanctuary wall, of a certain irony in preaching on simplicity. It might sound as if I want to strip it all back to plain albs and white walls and all of that.   But these things are an authentic expression of who we are in this parish. In that sense, I don’t think that they indicate a lack of simplicity in the sense that I’ve been talking about it. Simplicity isn’t devoid of beauty or celebration, but allows those things to find their proper place in our lives.

Still, it is a good thing for us to hear a reminder that in our contemporary culture, models of a healthy simplicity are desperately needed. Our neighbours are crying out for leaders and exemplars who model authenticity, clarity, and purpose. If our community can be one in which we show the value of a deep spirit of prayer, and a life of obedience to the purposes of God, we can be a real place of refreshment in a world that sees little enough of those things.

Think of what Paul wrote to Titus; “Show yourself in all respects a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, gravity, and sound speech that cannot be censured.” If we can do that – if we can be a church where the integrity and reverence of our lives is the example we set before the world; if we can be a community where what you see is what you get – we will have taken to heart the example of St. Bartholomew, the Israelite in whom there was no deceit, in a truly healthy and life-giving way.

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Priestly preaching

This afternoon, I’ve been re-reading a paper +Rowan Williams gave some years ago on “Living Baptismally.”  In it, he spends some time discussing the priestly dimension of baptismal identity, and he says this:

“A real priesthood is a priesthood that understands what it is to make sense and make connections, and to do so in ways which are very much more than superficial and decorative.  A priestliness which is simply putting the stamp of religious approval on what anybody else happens to be doing is not a making of connections.  The priest is there to make the unexpected connections, which is more than putting a stamp on what happens to be going on and that is why authentic priesthood is such a very difficult task both for those we call ordained priests and for the whole priestly people of God.  In fact, the priest may be seen as the one who must perpetually be asked by (and attempt to answer for) the people, the question Prospero asks Miranda in The Tempest: ‘What seest thou else?’  Making sense is hard work.  Making Christian sense, making Christian connections, is still harder.  This is a world in which fragmentation is frequently the dominant theme and to make sense, to connect across the abyss…is no small matter.”

As I think about what it might mean to be “ready” to be priested (as I hope to be, soon), this makes a lot of sense to me.  It also resonates very strongly with how I understand the task of preaching.

To me, a good sermon is one which makes connections; it brings out elements of the Biblical text and connects those to the real lives of the people listening, and their current circumstances.  It takes seriously their experiences of God and faith and seeks to integrate those into a greater whole; the experiences of God and faith of Christians (and indeed other faithful people before them) over the millennia.

This is why experience is important in theological reflection.  Because it’s only when our encounter with Scripture actually connects with our own lives, our own understanding, that it is able to be brought to life in us, to push us towards faithfulness and fruitfulness.  It’s also why good sermon preparation is about listening; it’s not just what you read in the commentaries, but what you hear at hospital beds, in nursing homes and over cups of tea with your congregation members that provides the raw material for those connections.  Preaching can be brilliant without any anchor in the concrete life of the community; but I don’t know that that kind of preaching can be truly life giving in the long term.

It also occurs to me that what +Rowan describes above takes time and space to think.  This is perhaps, for the busy pastor (and the busy mother!) the hardest challenge.  How do I create the time and space where I am free to think deeply and allow these connections to form?  I am reminded again of the importance of that discipline, which I struggle with so much.  It’s a struggle in which I need to be vigilant, for the love of the people I’m here to serve.